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The Morning Dispatch: Monday, October 14, 2019
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The Morning Dispatch: Monday, October 14, 2019

Middle East muddling, Beto’s blunders, and Shep’s farewell.

Good morning, and happy Monday. Here’s hoping you didn’t have too much money on the Cowboys yesterday. 

The Unraveling

It’s rare to see the consequences of a major foreign policy decision unfold so quickly and with such unambiguously catastrophic consequences. 

On October 6, the White House announced that Turkey would be moving into northern Syria. The U.S. military would neither assist in the operation nor try to stop it, and our personnel would be leaving the immediate area. In practical terms, the Trump administration was effectively greenlighting an attack by Turkey and its affiliated militia groups against the Kurds who had fought alongside U.S. forces to neutralize ISIS. 

Since then:

  • Kurds have been displaced by the tens of thousands.

  • The Kurds, not long ago U.S. allies, announced a new alliance with Bashar Assad’s government in Syria.

  • Hundreds of ISIS-affiliated detainees have been freed.

It’s no wonder that so many long-reticent Republicans have found their voices on this issue. GOP lawmakers have complained that the White House decision abandons an important ally, sends a damaging message to current and future allies, and creates an opening to reshape the region for American enemies, Syria, Iran and Russia. 

And then there’s ISIS. The president defended his announcement, tweeting: “I am trying to end the ENDLESS WARS.” But virtually every military expert has warned that the opposite outcome is more likely. On Meet the Press on Sunday, former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, said: “If we don’t keep the pressure on, then ISIS will resurge. It’s absolutely a given that they will come back.”

ISIS was already strengthening. In an alarming report released over the summer, the Department of Defense inspector general reported that a partial withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria during the spring left remaining troops and their partners ill-equipped to deal with the ongoing “ISIS resurgence.” 

Mixed Messages

The Sunday shows were interesting for another reason. The Trump administration put out two top officials to make the president’s case. But at times it seemed as though Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Defense Secretary Mark Esper were on opposite sides of the issue. 

Esper appeared on both Fox News Sunday and CBS’s Face the Nation. On Fox, Esper decried the death and destruction in Syria at the hands of the Turks, telling host Chris Wallace the situation is “terrible” and getting “worse by the hour.” Later in the interview, he admitted the incursion “will damage U.S. relations with Turkey” and that Erdogan doesn’t seem like much of an ally:

I think Turkey, the arc of their behavior over the past several years has been terrible. I mean, they are spinning out of the western orbit, if you will. We see them purchasing Russian arms, cuddling up to President Putin. We see them doing all these things that, frankly, concern us that—with regard to the direction they are heading.

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, on the other hand, appeared to follow the president in tossing the Kurds aside when speaking with Jon Karl on ABC’s This Week:

I think the analogy that everybody’s saying is we’re abandoning the Kurds like the Kurds are these long standing allies. Our—our role in Syria was not to defend land for the Kurds in historical issues. Our focus was to defeat ISIS so you have a longstanding conflict between people that have been helping us with ISIS and Turkey which is a NATO ally.

Mnuchin raised the prospect of placing sanctions on Turkey, but as Karl pointed out, the Turks “don’t seem to be listening to those warnings.” 

It’s obvious there are varying degrees of comfort within the administration regarding Trump’s decision to essentially provide Turkey free rein in Syria. Mnuchin has consistently shown himself to be one of Trump’s most loyal surrogates. Esper, though, sits atop a US military that has sacrificed considerably to fight ISIS and like-minded jihadists. His public frustration is a restrained version of what we’ve heard from US military and intelligence professionals. As the consequences grow more dire and the arrangement harder to defend, look for other officials to speak out.

More Cause for GOP Angst?

Syria is not the only place that the U.S. is backsliding in its battle against radical Islamists. After abruptly ending negotiations with the Taliban early last month and declaring talks “dead,” the Trump administration is reportedly attempting to restart them. 

Trump wants out of Afghanistan. He has long wanted a “peace deal” to ease the way and has been willing to offer a series of concessions for an agreement. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad has led the talks since late last year and his first move was a capitulation. When the Taliban demanded to negotiate with Americans directly, rather than representatives of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, the U.S. agreed, delegitimizing America’s Afghan allies.

The talks themselves seem to have been largely fruitless. There’s been no evidence the Taliban will lay down its arms and recognize the legitimacy of the fragile Afghan government—to say nothing of choosing, suddenly, to end its nearly two-decades-long insurgency. But the administration pursued the talks undeterred.

Khalilzad was on the verge of finalizing a deal when Trump rescinded a surprise invitation for Taliban leaders to meet with him at Camp David in early September, just before the 18th anniversary of 9/11. In exchange for a timetable on withdrawing all foreign troops, the Taliban supposedly would have agreed to prevent Afghanistan from being used as a terrorist launching pad. This promise would be complicated by the fact that the Taliban is itself a terrorist organization, and has been for years, regularly dispatching its suicide bombers into civilian areas. And the Taliban has been inextricably connected to al-Qaeda for more than two decades. 

In any case, those private promises of good behavior were undermined by the Taliban continuing to be the Taliban in public. In July, the jihadist group released a video justifying the 9/11 hijackings, and the group has continued to work with al-Qaeda in the months since then. On September 23, U.S. and Afghan forces raided a major Taliban compound in Helmand province. Their target was a senior al-Qaeda lieutenant, Asim Umar, who reported directly to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Umar worked with the Taliban for years. Afghan and American officials say they killed Umar and several other al-Qaeda operatives in the raid.

President Trump pointed to a Taliban terrorist attack when he called off the Camp David meetings. Asked about the negotiations more generally, Trump said: “As far as I’m concerned, they are dead.”

But Trump wants out. So, the negotiations are alive again. That’s risky politically, given the grief he’s getting from Republicans in Congress over Syria. If Trump’s moves in Syria are seen as a gift to ISIS (among other U.S. enemies), will GOP lawmakers quietly abide a deal with the Taliban that even the Obama administration wouldn’t accept?

Beto Shoots Democrats in the Foot (And Then Confiscates the Gun)

Much is made of the split-screen nature of American politics, but rarely has the divide appeared as stark as it did on Thursday night. While President Trump held a campaign rally in Minneapolis promoting his administration’s crackdown on refugee admittance (and sensually bringing text messages between FBI agents Lisa Page and Peter Strzok to life), nine Democratic candidates for president took part in an equality town hall hosted by CNN and the Human Rights Campaign focused on LGBTQ issues.

Much of the evening focused on what have become conventional positions on the left, but also the center and even parts of the right. Sen. Amy Klobuchar supported federal and state measures to ban conversion therapy, a position recently that has broad public support. Kamala Harris pledged that as president, she would commit to ending HIV/AIDS “within a generation.” Pete Buttigieg, the first major openly gay candidate for president, emphasized compassion and acceptance for LGBTQ individuals.

But the evening included several examples of the increasing Democratic radicalism on LGBTQ issues that could threaten the party’s ability to make in-roads with middle America. Elizabeth Warren, asked how she’d respond to one of the 31 percent of Americans who oppose gay marriage, had a zinger dismissing such voters that will undoubtedly play great in Los Angeles and New York, but perhaps less so in Toledo or Scranton (see Deplorables, Hillary).

And Beto O’Rourke decided to go all “Leeeeeeeroooy Jenkins” and told Don Lemon churches, mosques, and other religious institutions that oppose same-sex marriage should lose their tax-exempt status. To be clear: This is a terrible idea. Tax-exempt religious institutions are a critical component of civil society and are crucial for maintaining effective separation of church and state. As the Freedom Forum Institute’s John Ferguson writes, “By avoiding initial inquiries into churches’ validity as houses of worship, government avoids violating the churches’ free-exercise right to define and regulate themselves.” 

On CNN’s State of the Union Sunday, Pete Buttigieg was quick to distance himself from O’Rourke’s stance: 

Going after the tax exemption of churches, Islamic centers or other religious facilities in this country, I think that’s just going to deepen the divisions that we’re already experiencing, at a moment when we’re actually seeing more and more people, motivated often by compassion and by people they love, moving in the right direction on LGBTQ rights.

This isn’t the first time O’Rourke has jumped off the top rope with an extreme proposal and caused a stir. Asked whether he supported a mandatory buyback of assault weapons during a debate last month, he immediately shot back, “Hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.”

There are two possible explanations for this series of own goals. Either Beto was created in a lab by GOP political operatives to convince Republicans that Democrats really do want to do all the things they’ve spent years saying they don’t. Or, he’s stuck below 2 percent in the polls and he’s looking for something—anything—that will create a moment viral enough to get him booked on cable news one last time.

Which brings us to Tuesday’s debate on CNN. As actual voting inches closer and closer, some Democrats are starting to sound the alarm bells over the party’s leftward lurch. As Steve Peoples writes for the Associated Press in this readout from working class Pennsylvania, “The highly educated urban Democrats may be the most vocal, particularly on Twitter. But it is the working class in places like Beaver County who may ultimately decide Trump’s fate.”

Keep an eye out for this tension on stage tomorrow night.

The Week Ahead (So Far)

  • Monday, October 14:

    • Columbus Day

    • Congressional recess ends

    • Fiona Hill impeachment deposition

    • Cardinals at Nationals NLCS Game 3

  • Tuesday, October 15:

    • Cardinals at Nationals NLCS Game 4

    • Astros at Yankees ALCS Game 3

    • CNN/New York Times Democratic debate at 8 p.m. ET

  • Wednesday, October 16:

    • Cardinals at Nationals NLCS Game 5 (if necessary)

    • Astros at Yankees ALCS Game 4

  • Thursday, October 17:

    • Senate Armed Services Committee Hearing on Syria Situation

    • Gordon Sondland impeachment deposition

    • Trump campaign rally in Dallas 

    • Astros at Yankees ALCS Game 5

  • Friday, October 18: 

    • Nationals at Cardinals NLCS Game 6 (if necessary)

What Else We’re Reading/Watching

  • Bloomberg has a great rundown of the partial trade deal Trump struck with China on Friday afternoon. In short, China agreed to certain intellectual property provisions and to buy more agricultural goods from the United States. Trump agreed to delay a pending tariff increase. Markets reacted positively.

  • In an effort to draw attention to Facebook’s lax political advertising standards, Elizabeth Warren is promoting a post on Facebook that includes a blatant lie. The Trump campaign has done the same, without admitting as much. Read Kayla Epstein on how, “without any clear sense of where lines are on social media, politicians of both parties will likely continue to cross them.”

  • Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, a libertarian-minded conservative who rode the Tea Party wave to election in 2010, renounced his membership to the Republican Party in July. Time’s Lissandra Villa checks in on how he’s doing in the months since. Spoiler: “Of all the years I’ve been in office, I’m the happiest now,” he says.

  • Longtime Fox News anchor (and amateur llama-chase color commentator) Shepard Smith abruptly announced his decision to leave the network on Friday, in a move that stunned many of his co-workers. Smith had faced criticism from President Trump and those on Fox’s opinion side for his commitment to facts. His final sign-off is worth two minutes of your time.

Presented Without Comment

Something Fun

Saturday Night Live in recent years has become primarily a venue for anti-Trump celebrities to pop by and re-enact verbatim something that happened at the White House earlier in the week. But this gritty, Joker-inspired, Oscar the Grouch origin story—featuring David Harbour of “Stranger Things” fame—is really something special. Come for the anthropomorphic Bert and Ernie getting mugged over a rubber duck, stay for the most haunting rendition of the Sesame Street theme song you’ve ever heard.

Toeing The Company Line

  • Jonah’s first G-File under The Dispatch banner went out on Friday evening, and it was every bit the “curly fry that mysteriously ends up in the bag of normal fries” you’ve come to expect. Be sure to subscribe and get it delivered straight to your inbox every Friday.

  • Jonah also had Mo Elleithee, the executive director of Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics on The Remnant podcast this week. Though one is a conservative and one is (gasp!) a liberal, they managed to have a productive conversation on the 2020 Democratic primary, Trump’s re-election chances, and white working class voters.

Let Us Know

Which of the following will Beto O’Rourke roll out as his next major policy proposal/cry for attention?

  • The Electoral College will be replaced by a national popular vote, but only Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, and New York Magazine editors have suffrage.

  • Chick-Fil-A restaurants must be closed on both Saturdays and Sundays.

  • No one whose first name begins with a J, C, N, or B is allowed to sit on the Supreme Court, retroactive to 1991.

  • Campaign consultant expenses will become fully tax-deductible, offset by a 30 percent tax on charitable giving.

  • Everyone must kneel for the pledge of allegiance, and also the pledge of allegiance is now that John Oliver “Drumpf” segment.

Send your suggestions for Beto’s next big thing, or other comments, to Reporting by Declan Garvey, Andrew Egger, and Thomas Joscelyn.